When you think of "traditional" design, what do you picture? Do you see wingback chairs and cream-colored walls? Large sofas surrounded by a white wainscot? A room trimmed with moldings?

Or do you not picture anything, because you’re not quite sure what makes up traditional design? You probably aren't alone; traditional design has many different elements.

“It covers a lot of territory,” says Barney Maier, senior architect at Feinmann Inc. "Traditional design can mean the Victorian period, the Greek revival period, it can mean the colonial period … they’re very different in nature.”

“[There are] a lot of details,” says Alicia Saso, senior designer at Drury Design. "Your crown molding, your light rail, your furniture toe would all have a very detailed molding profile, versus contemporary, which is very clean and smooth.”

Image courtesy of Drury Design

The myriad of historical styles and details sometimes causes homeowners to shy away from requesting a traditional space. Maier finds that some people feel it’s “inappropriate to the modern world.” The symmetrical nature of traditional architecture, especially in colonial design, can feel “uninspired and boring,” Maier says, though he does qualify the remark by saying that is more of an architect’s bias than a non-architect’s thoughts.

Saso thinks homeowners feel that traditional design is all about the details. Some don’t realize that traditional can be very simple and nothing needs to be “overly ornate.”

“A lot of people think of all those heavy moldings and carvings ... can be too much, but it’s just about using everything here and there, very lightly so it’s proportionate,” she says. “Sometimes people feel it’s overbearing, but it just has to be designed right.”

Both feel that traditional design is generally preferred by older clients, especially as the more streamlined modern aesthetic grows in popularity. Maier says that the older generation leans more toward traditional design because they tend to be more conservative. He’s also noticed a trend with wealth and traditional design. “You’ll find the very wealthy tend to design homes ... that [are] traditional,” he says. “You’ll find traditional styles associated with those who feel [they] have arrived.”

Image courtesy of Feinmann Inc.
John Horner Image courtesy of Feinmann Inc.

Saso says that younger families are looking for designs that have simple, clean lines that are easy to care for. “Sometimes they want a hint of [traditional] to mix in, but I would say the overly traditional style is probably for an older demographic.”

Though traditional design is mostly popular with an older demographic, it is easy to mix traditional elements with other design styles. In the kitchen, for example, Saso suggests pairing an ogee edge on the island countertop with a more contemporary straight edge on the countertop on the cabinets. She also suggests incorporating brushed nickel finishes into a space instead of the more traditional oil-rubbed bronze or black finishes. "Everything doesn't have to be matchy-matchy," she says.

Maier says designing the interior of a traditional space is not only dependent on the designer, but also on the homeowner. Because traditional design encompasses so many different styles, each one will be different. A Victorian style, Maier says, will be more "dark and moody" than other traditional styles. "Your palette[for interior design] is usually traditional elements, and the feeling is dependent upon the purpose and the tastes of the owner."

Image courtesy of Drury Design

“If [your client] wants something truly traditional, make sure that it not only fits with what the client wants, but with the rest of the house lends itself to,” Saso says. “If it is a traditional home, pick up on if they have crown molding around the room [and] the other furniture in the house, so you’re not copying what they have, but blending it.” In addition, she suggests looking into well-made furniture pieces at the beginning of the design process. Part of the traditional aesthetic is to make pieces in a space, even immovable objects like cabinets, look like true furniture pieces. Homeowners associate that aesthetic with quality, so examining furniture is a great place to begin, Saso says.

Maier emphasizes the need for research. “Go into the library and look at and study some of the classical architecture,” he advises. “One of the challenges is to reeducate oneself to some of the classical proportioning strategies [and] balance. … We say floor plan is king, so floor plan is going to help you layout what the issues are. Once you go to the three-dimensional qualities, then another set of issues come in, and the challenge will be to reconcile those two.”